Cometary Tales Blog Conventioning preview

Conventioning preview

I’m findable at online readings, conventions, and open mics and available for more at the drop of a … microphone. (See my Appearances page!) Here’s what I’ve been squee-ing about lately. Yes, I know, Octocon’s over, but I can’t resist sharing this cute view with Octo in their Wonder Woman outfit. In my Twitter feed this week, I’m sharing links to the videos of my panels, which are all live on Twitch right now and will be on YouTube forever … or until people get tired of them.

In December, I’ll be (virtually) on-site at the World Science Fiction Convention, DisCon III. I’ll be roving the virtual halls and hanging out in the dealers room. Water Dragon Publishing is planning lots of special activities there, like we had at Readercon in August! See you there!

Octocon is Coming!

On October 1-3rd, I’ll be part of the the Irish National Science Fiction Convention, Octocon. It’s free, online, and international! The programme has just been finalized. I’m moderating two panels, participating in another, and will also be taking part in a Very Silly Event. Click the super-secret button below to find my panels—and connect to the full programme.

A cute pink-and-red cartoon octopus is cosplaying as Wonder Woman while twirling her golden lasso of truth. Text: Octocon The national irish science fiction convention.

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On Aisle 42, Universe Components: Notes for Project LeadersOn Aisle 42, Universe Components: Notes for Project Leaders

I have a pair of projects to present this time–together, they are a sugar-based approach to understanding the building blocks of our universe.  The goal is to build up a sense of the scale and dynamic relationships among the smallest particles identified to date, and how they combine to form the stuff we call “matter”.  By the end of these activities, everyone participating should have a clearer picture of the following:

1. All of the matter in our universe is composed of just a few extremely basic and very tiny building blocks.  They’re called quarks and leptons.

2.These building blocks, in the right combinations, make the next-level construction materials.  The most common ones are electrons, protons, and neutrons.  But there are others, too.

3. Once you have electrons, protons, and neutrons, you can build elements.  Each element has particular physical and chemical properties–which arise from its unique physical composition of protons, electrons, and neutrons.

To make this activity fun (besides incorporating sweet treats), it helps to build into the presentation an element of discovery.  First, we come to terms with the fact that the familiar atom is not the smallest particle.  Second, we wrap our minds around the knowledge that even the tiny particles inside the atomic nucleus are made of even tinier ones.  Third, at the conclusion, it’s truly mind-expanding to try to envision each of these in true relative scale.

The atom is still a meaningful idea, so long as we adjust its definition to suit modern understanding.  The concept of the atom dates back over 2500 years, to Leucippus of Miletus and his more-famous student, Democritus.  They reasoned out that if you keep cutting a material, you’ll eventually reach a particle that cannot be divided further.  In Greek, the word “a” means “not” and “tomos” means cut, so when you call something an “atom,” you’re saying you can’t subdivide it.  However, even now that we know that the structures we call “atoms” can be broken open, we still use the term. For instance, we’ll talk about “an atom of iron” or “the carbon atom”.  But instead of defining the atom as “indivisible”, we now describe it as the smallest unit of a material that still retains those unique physical and chemical properties defined by its combination of electrons, protons, and neutrons.

In this project, we will build atoms from electrons, protons, and neutrons.  Energized by our constructions, we will discard our preconceptions about the structure of the universe and descend to the sub-sub atomic scale, where we will capture quarks and leptons, then build ourselves some protons and neutrons and electrons.  And then we will eat the lot:  atoms, quarks, protons and all. It’s elemental.

We’ll proceed in two parts:  “The Atomic Marshmallow Project” introduces the idea of atoms and their components, and “One Side Will Make You Smaller” takes us down into the realm of quarks.  As in our other science projects, we’ll include information to share with the participants as you go along. For those who would like to delve into more detail, you’ll find links to good sources with plenty of depth.

Everything You Need to Build A Universe

Chasing Comets

Chasing Comets: Notes for Project Leaders #1Chasing Comets: Notes for Project Leaders #1

In this activity, the most important idea is to explore and experiment with models and games to understand how a comet’s tail behaves as the comet hurtles around the sun. The key concept is that the comet’s tail is being pushed away from the sun by the ionizing radiation, solar wind and even the light itself blasting out of the sun. This means that when the comet is inbound, approaching the sun, its tail streams behind it, like a horse’s tail. But on the outbound journey, as the comet leaves the sun behind, its tail flies out in front of it. What we hope the participants will take away from these activities is a picture of what a comet looks like as it moves and the knowledge of why it looks that way.

Comet-tail behavior simply makes sense when “experienced” from the comet’s point of view.  If by any chance some of these facts are a discovery for you, too, don’t feel like you have to keep it a secret that you are learning–have fun with it. A key ingredient in the formula for growing a scientist is that finding out how the universe works is fun. Or, in the words of one physicist profiled in the film Particle Fever: The real answer to “why do we do this is . . . because it’s cool.”)

Keep in mind the constraints of your particular situation when assembling your materials and pre-planning the project. For instance, if there aren’t enough classroom scissors or if session time is tightly constrained, you can pre-cut the ribbon for the individual comet models into 3-foot lengths. Be aware of opportunities for participants with special needs—for instance, the comet-running activity does require at least one person to be standing still. In return, that one who just can’t stand still could be a pinch-runner. If the group as a whole isn’t particularly fast-moving, the “running” game can be done at whatever pace suits the team.   (One can be a “student” at any age—most of us middle-aged folks are not exactly speed-demons.)  If you’re planning this as a home-schooling project, this is one you’ll want to save for a get-together with other home-schoolers–you need at least three players and it is ever so much more fun with a group.

Stage 1: The Small-Scale Experiment

This description may look long, but that’s just to let you walk through it easily and to share some photos to help. This whole Stage 1 should take about fifteen minutes, tops.   I’ll spare your weary eyes and park the “Stage 2” and “Stage 3” activities in the next posting–but don’t worry, the entire activity fits into a single science session if you can claim an hour’s time to play with.

Before distributing materials, bring out one individual model comet, the sample to be used for the models everyone will take home. It’s simply an ordinary badminton birdie with long streamers of ribbon tied to it. For now, keep the ribbons bunched up inside the net of the birdie. Explain that the ball at the end of the birdie is the comet’s nucleus, the frilly part can be its atmosphere, or coma, which begins to form as the gas and dust which jets away from the outer layers comet as it warms up.

Chasing Comets

One Small Comet

Notes: I’d suggest that you relax and let your sample comet be imperfect—comets are messy creatures by nature and you don’t need that one super-meticulous individual slowing down the whole event by striving to exactly matching a perfect sample. If you have an older, more experienced group of comet enthusiasts to work with, you can interject the extra information about the distinction between the ion and dust tails—perhaps even represent them by different ribbon colors. On the other hand, if you’re working with anyone between the ages of 5 and 15, and you don’t want to deal with distracting snickers and giggles erupting through the group, simply refrain from using the technical term for a birdie. Oh, come on, you know why.

OK, back to it. The ribbon represents those gases and dust particles that make up the comet’s tail(s). Now, if we toss our model across the room, what happens to the streamers tied to it? Right . . . they float out behind. They don’t stretch out in front or clump in a bunch around the head of the “birdie”. You can demonstrate by trying to throw your comet backwards: hold the tail in front and toss, but the tail will just fall back to the head and—if your throw is a mighty one—end up in back again..

Now, invite answers to a key question: why does the ribbon float behind? What pushes the tail behind the cone as it flies through the room? With a little nudging, you should get general agreement that it is the air pushing on the lightweight streamers, shoving them behind the “head” of our comet.

But now we must turn to a more difficult line of questioning. Pull out playground or soccer ball (a handy model for the sun), and ask one student to stand and hold up your Sun so everyone can see the next portion. Bunch up the comet’s tail in the back of the shuttlecock again, and carry the comet in a “flight” around the “Sun”. As you move, ask the students to think hard about what happens to the comet’s tail as it whips around the sun.

Start easy. Shake out the streamers, and stretch them out with your free hand. Move the comet towards the sun. Which way should I point the streamers? Everyone will be quick to tell you to pull them backwards, away from the sun. Now, place the comet at its closest approach to the sun, just before it curves back to head into deep space again. “I’m at the Sun now,” you can say, “zooming around the back of it. And moving as fast as I’ll go in this journey. Which way should the streamers point?”

Usually this question generates some disagreement. A reasonable argument would be that you should hold the streamers behind the comet, as it moves, which would mean the comet’s tail would point along a tangent to its orbit around the Sun. (Even if the students are covering tangents in math, please don’t interrupt yourself to pause and discuss tangents right now! Use this lesson later to enliven the math session.)

Chasing Comets

Tail Behind?

Chasing Comets

Tail In Front?

Chasing Comets

Tail Sideways?

Some students may suggest—quite logically–that when you are that close, the Sun’s gravity should pull the tail towards it. If the group is large enough, you should also get someone who can argue that the tail should point away from the sun—for now, it doesn’t matter if this is a knowledge-based claim or just a contrarian viewpoint from snarkiest person in the room. Whatever hypotheses are offered, just accept them as proposed solutions and demonstrate what each would look like.

Finally, move to the “outbound” portion of your comet’s orbit. “Our comet now flies on away from the sun, perhaps to return in another century or two. Now, which way should the comet’s tail point?” Again, if you have managed to keep a poker face so far, the most popular answer is likely have the tail streaming behind the comet. As before, accept and demonstrate each of the guesses. If students have reasons for their theories, let everyone hear them. Discussing and justifying hypotheses is an integral part of the real scientific process.

If you have access to a blackboard (oh, well, it’s modern times, so, okayokayokay, you can use your smelly whiteboard or that fancy tablet-linked projector), now is the moment to leave off demonstrating with the model and sketch the competing hypotheses for everyone to see. Your picture will look kind of like this. Please remember to Keep It Messy.

Chasing Comets

Discussing Possible Tail Directions

Have you ever read one of those annoying mystery stories in which the author leaves you in the dark about a critical fact that solves the entire case? Well, here too, we have denied our puzzle-solvers an important clue. So, tell the group it’s time for a change of topic. But actually what we’re doing is rolling out the narrative twist that makes the whole thing so cool.

Here on Earth, it is air that pushes the streamers on our comet model. But how much air is there out in space? (So little that you might as well say “zero”!) But without air, why should any comet have a tail at all?

What comes out of the sun? You should hear the following answers: heat, light, maybe even radiation. But has anyone heard of the solar wind? The sun blasts out particles, too? The sun is shooting out plasma, protons and electrons flying through the solar system at thousands of miles per hour. This is the solar wind, which blows through the solar system all the time, at thousands of miles per hour. The particles are tiny, not even as big as atoms, so it is an invisible wind. And like wind, it’s not perfectly even, it gusts and changes from moment to moment as the Sun itself changes.

All of those things we named help to make our comets look the way they do. Consider your audience…

Explanation #1: You are all correct. All of that stuff blasting out of the sun–light, radiation, heat, and the solar wind–shove all that stuff leaking out of the comet into a tail. And since all that stuff is coming from the sun, the only way the tail can point is away from the sun.

Explanation #2: All of those answers are correct . . . and they all combine to make a comet’s tail. The heat of the sun warms the comet to free the gases and dust. The solar wind blasts the gases—and the particles in the solar wind also interact with those gases, stripping some of their electrons to make that part of the tail a glowing stream of ionized gas. The radiation from the sun actually can push things, and that pressure is just strong enough to shove those tiny dust particles enough to counteract their tendency to fall towards the sun. And the visible sunlight reflects from the spread-out cloud of dust, making the comet shine in our night sky.

Again, with older/experienced participants, now is the time to clue them in that radiation pressure—the totally cool idea that sunlight itself exerts pressure—exists because light is electromagnetic radiation and electromagnetic radiation is a wave and a wave [http://physics.info/em-waves/] pushes on the objects it encounters. You may not feel battered and bruised by the TV and radio waves powering through you day and night or be physically bowled over by the sunlight forming a gorgeous rainbow. But: it’s enough to push fine grains of dust. The only sad thing about radiation pressure is it’s not common knowledge yet—it’s been proven since 1873.

To represent these solar forces, we need to make a breeze. For that job, a fan does the trick. When we turn it on, it blasts a healthy “solar” wind. (Be sure to experiment in advance with your fan and sample comet–there’s a lot of variation in fan settings.)

Chasing Comets

Inbound Comet

Hold the comet in the “inbound” position, with the front of the birdie pointed at the Fan Sun.  Yes! We were all correct: the tail points behind the comet as it moves towards the sun.

If the fan is strong enough, you can also use the model to hint at how the length of the comet’s tail changes. Far from the sun, the comet has no tail; far from the fan, our streamers dangle to the floor. A little closer in, a real comet’s tail appears as a pale streak behind it; as you approach your fan, the model’s streamers lift up and begin to flutter weakly behind it. Near the sun, the tail stretches out millions of miles behind a real comet’s head; near the fan, the your streamers stretch their full length.

Now, what about when the comet is heading away from the sun? Which way will the tail be pointing, now that we know about the solar “wind”? Nearly everyone will see, now, that it must point away from the sun.

Chasing Comets

Outbound Comet

Demonstrate that this works: you point the birdie’s nose away from the fan, turn on the blast, and the streamers flow out over the front of the birdie. The shape of the birdie helps emphasize the incongruity of our expectation—that the tail goes behind—with the reality: the solar forces push the tail.

If the class has patience for one more test, add the third question: what happens when the comet is rounding the far side of the sun, and is pointed “sideways”? Hold the comet model perpendicular to the flow of the fan.

Chasing Comets

Comet At Perihelion

Let everyone see how the tail sweeps out to the side of the comet. It always points away from the sun, no matter what direction the comet is pointing.

Here’s 13 seconds of one model comet in action:

 

 

Coming Real Soon:  Stage 2

 

 

 

 

A cylindrical spacecraft with long solar panels spreading out on both sides.

The names in “All That Was Asked”The names in “All That Was Asked”

In my previous post, I tried to explain how all those odd names ended up in my recently-published book and why I think it’s fun to play around with languages in the middle of a story.

So, what if you don’t really care about all that linquistic nonsense, but just want a guide to pronouncing stuff in this particular story?  In what follows, I’m going to share what I’ve prepared for the person doing our audio book.  On the surface, it may look daunting, but, really, it all hangs together with a few key elements:

Sensei, in Kanji
Source: japanesewithanime.com 
(CC BY-SA 4.0)
  • Lots of the names end in a shortened “ay” sound I’ve tagged here as ei. It sounds almost like a long ay, but is cut short like you were going to pronounce a “y” on the end, but stopped yourself just in time, “say” without that teensy “eeya” sound that wraps up that word. Sort of like “sensei” as pronounced in Japan, or at least in anime and Japanese TV shows.
  • In names ending in e, the final e is always sounded–usually as that shortened “ay” sound.
  • The exception is “ere”, which is ayr-ee, wherever it happens to fall, so some names end with ayr-ee, while some have that in the middle or at the beginning.
  • Children (or adults being teased as if they are children) or intimate friends get their names shortened with a bit of a stop in the middle, so Ansegwe becomes An-s-wei, and Kantalare becomes K-a-la-rei
  • As an example of the “translated words” system: the “aunts” are “awnts”, Brit/Northeast/Southern style, rather than Midwestern style “ants”.

Digression: How come I like weird names?  Well, jeepers, I’ve got one of my own, one that often gets pronounced weird, though I don’t care, really, I’ve heard ’em all.  The “correct” way is va-‘ness-uh ma-‘cla-ren-‘ray.  There are other pronunciations in use . . . but those are other Vanessas and other MacLarens. 

OK, here we go.  I’m not using really formal linguistic notation, but sound-shorthand that I think we all can follow. I put a single quote at the front of the stressed syllable in each word. 

  1. Our Main Characters

Varayla Ansegwe, Eskenyan Jemenga, Ensense Kantalare, Varaylas Ansele and Adeleke, and Haillyen.  These all appear frequently, though it takes a while for Kantalare to show up.  See how what we call “last names” (family names) come first, and “first names” (personal names) come second.

Wary, indeed.
Photo of sketch on wall, by Quinn Dombrowski, Berkeley, CA (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Varayla: Va-‘ray-la This one’s pretty phonetic, the tricky thing, from listening to auditions for our audio book, is that some people seem to read the “yla” as “lya”.  This reminds me of how people read the second half of my last name as “Wary” instead of “Wray”.  Don’t let it worry you, but if you prefer mispronouncing Varayla, just don’t go to Korlo. In the bad old days, you could earn a set of cement overshoes for mispronouncing that name to the wrong person.

Ansegwe: ‘ahn-seg-wei Our hero’s name is most likely to be mispronounced as on-‘seg-way, which is hilarious, as it makes me picture this enormous klutz trying to ride a Segway.  The first syllable should be said relatively slowly, so the second two click together fast, so that you almost lose the sound of the “e” in the middle: ahns’gwei. It has a kind of Japanese flavor to it.

Eskenyan: ess-‘ken-yan It sounds sort of like “a person from Kenya” (at least the way Americans say it) plus “Ess” in front of it.

Jemenga: ja-‘meng-uh When Jemenga is particularly pleased with himself, he really hits that middle syllable, so it’s like Ja-MENG-ah!

The Varayla Syndicate’s above-board operations include space-based solar power satellites.
(Not quite like this. This is NASA’s Solar-b satellite)

Ansele: ‘ahn-se-lei Tycoon aunt #1.

Adeleke: a-‘del-e-kei Tycoon aunt #2.

Haillyen: ‘hay-ul-lee-yen This is a “foreign” word to Ansegwe, so he’s basically phonetically “translated” it, the ‘y’ in the last syllable is a  bridge sound you get when putting ee and en together between the ee and the en.  Do ya get it? Yeah?  The reader should get it about 100 pages before Ansegwe catches on.

Ensense: en-‘sens-ei  You know, like, “sensei” with an “en” at the front.

Kantalare: kahn-tah-‘lahr-ei There’s a secondary stress on the first syllable.  Just make it sound pretty in your head.  Ansegwe is totally in love with her, so, whatever, hear her as beautiful

2. The people on the expedition

Some of these folks are only mentioned or quoted during the “expedition” chapters.

Tkonle: t-‘kawn-lei

Kulandere: koo-lahn-‘dayr-ee

Tekere: ta-‘kayr-ee

Tereinse: ‘tayr-ee-in-sei

Alekwa: ah-‘leek-wah

Nara: ‘nah-rah

Ensargen: en-‘sahr-gen It’s a hard g, as in “gun”, not a soft one as in “generation”. They don’t really use hard “g”

Korton: ‘kor-tun

Alawere: ah-la-‘wayr-ee

Tasegion: tah-‘seg-ee-on

Turame: too-‘rah-mei

3. People at home

Kateseo: ka-‘tay-see-oh

Kinshada: kin-‘shah-dah

Tumbal: ‘toom-bal

Erekulu: ayr-ee-‘koo-loo OK, this one isn’t a person, he’s a domesticated animal, so his name is a little goofy, meant to sound cute.

Tokal: toh-‘kahl

Ans’we: ‘ahn-se-wei This is a nickname for Ansegwe, used mostly by Kantalare, but also used by his expedition “friends” when they want to get on his case.

K’alare-: kah-‘lahr-ei This is a nickname for Kantalare, used by Ansegwe.

Az-dyel: ahz-dee-‘ell Note that this is another “foreign” word that Ansegwe has transcribed this way, so it’s pretty phonetic, the three syllables have almost equal stress, I hear just a little more on the last one, but you can feel more free to mess around with this one–it’s the ONLY word in this language that appears at all.

Eskewere: ess-ke-wayr-ee

Ensense Halense: en-‘sen-sei hah-‘len-sei This is a member of Kantalare’s extended family that they happen to run into at some point. 

4. List of authors. 

About two-thirds of the way through, someone gives Ansegwe a reading list, and the authors of the books are a mix of people from his world, one from outside his culture, and one (the last) he’s going to spend a lot of time with. I wouldn’t worry about these too much, but have fun with them.  Yeah, uh-huh, that’s intentional.

Asvelan Kulumbu: ‘ahs-veh-lahn  koo-‘loom-boo

Palawan Vejr: ‘pah-lah-wahn  vee-‘yay-zher

Trjia Qwijlian: ‘trr-zhee-ah  ‘kwizh-lee-ahn

Tsulander Tkonle: ‘Tzoo-lahn-der  T’kawn-lei

5. People in quotes.

Yeah, this is one of those books where each chapter opens with a quote from someone.  I picture these as remarks that people who know Ansegwe have made when interviewed about the events in the story.  Picture them sitting across the desk on their version of The Daily Show, chatting with their Trevor Noah.  Most of the quoted individuals made it into the final.  A few only get mentioned in these quotes.  These ones are mostly government officials.  Make them sound stuffy, self-important, and less-than-competent.

Insake Hailaware: ‘in-sah-kei  hai-uh-la-‘wahr-ei (For fussiness, there’s a secondary stress on first syllable in Hailaware. He will get all huffy if you miss that and maybe will find some minor infraction to write you up for.)

Elesennen Haileski: el-es-‘sen-en  hai-uh-‘les-kee

Kinsala Tkerelon: kin-‘sah-lah  T-‘kayr-ee-lon

6. Other words and place names.

The story takes place in a fairly limited set of “alien” geographic locations.  But I do have some place names included and there are a few other “thing” words that appear more than once.

The Kalinidor is something like this.
Alexander Fleming’s Nobel Prize (1945)
(Jemenga would discover penicillin if someone else hadn’t already.) Source: Science and Society Picture Library, London Museum of Science (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Korlo: ‘kor-low It simply sounds like “core” “low”.  This is Ansegwe’s country. 

Kalinidor: ka-‘lin-ee-dor This is a person’s name that’s become an object name–sort of like the Nobel Prize, well, actually, exactly like the Nobel prize.  Jemenga really really wants one of these.

Quazwallade: kwaz-‘wall-ah-dei  This is a place name, just a foreign country, one with some technological and cultural differences from Korlo.

Cignali: sig-‘nah-lee Let’s say that probably this was originally a person’s name, but now it’s the name of a famous university, think “Stanford”.

Utumwe: oo-‘tum-wei I told you there were academics in this story.  This is another university, a medical school actually, one that Jemenga lectures at, when they can get him.

Terende: ta-‘ren-dei  Another place name.

Tule: ‘too-lei Yep, place name. Doesn’t get much play, but even minor places count, says the writer who lives in a town that isn’t a proper town, just a collection of farms, houses, shops, and a gas station, that gets its own post office.

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